Mayoral forum: Hart faults Vernon on politics, which she says is asset

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids mayoral candidate Monica Vernon absorbed criticism about her involvement in partisan politics during a forum Monday night but scored that experience as an asset.

Vernon, who’s well known for her runs for higher office as a Democrat, said when it comes to building relationships in the Statehouse in Des Moines or inside the beltway in Washington, D.C., officials know a person’s politics before they arrive, and it is “naive” to assume one can conceal his or her political affiliation.

“They are going to know miles before you get there,” Vernon said. “You have to get a person who is reasonable, who knows what she is there for, who’s done her homework, who is likable, who can build a relationship, and goodness knows we really need to do more of that in our city, our state and our nation.”

Fellow candidate Brad Hart, a registered Republican who hasn’t been active in partisan campaigns, called Vernon’s partisan background the “elephant in the room.”

The mayoral runoff forum at the Cedar Rapids Public Library was hosted by the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and the Hawkeye Labor Council — open only to members of those organizations — and KCRG-TV9. About 60 people attended.

The forum featured far more agreement than disagreement, and Vernon, a businesswoman and former City Council member, and Hart, a business lawyer, drew few distinctions in their experiences and positions on city issues.

Both say the city is heading in the right direction, city leaders must do more to incorporate feedback from residents, and residents deserve more answers on the fruits of the 1-percent local-option sales tax for street repairs. Their experiences and approaches to leadership, they said, make them the right choice.

Vernon and Hart emerged as the top two candidates from a field of eight on election night last Tuesday. Vernon, 60, took 30 percent of the vote and 34 precincts, compared to 20 percent and five precincts for Hart, 61. The runoff election — which also has the District 5 council seat on the ballot — is Dec. 5.

Moderator Doug Neumann, executive director of the Economic Alliance, urged the two candidates to try to draw some separation as the forum neared its end. The format was arranged with time for rebuttal but rather than contrast their positions, the candidates chose to elaborate on their earlier answers, Neumann noted.

Hart questioned Vernon highlighting her time as mayor pro tem — or second in command on the City Council — as evidence of her leadership. The mayor pro tem position presides over City Council meeting when the mayor is absent, but Hart said Mayor Ron Corbett was rarely absent. Corbett is not seeking re-election.

“The idea that (position) gave you some special knowledge I don’t think is really accurate,” Hart said. “No offense. It is not rocket science. It is getting the facts, analyzing the facts and finding the best way forward and work with a group of council members to engage them in conversation and get them to all agree to move something forward.”

Hart highlighted his role in leadership on several boards, some of which have worked directly with city government, as evidence of his ability to guide a diverse group to productive outcomes. He’s touted his involvement in appealing on the city’s behalf at the state and federal level for flood protection aid — as has Vernon — as an example of how he’s served without sitting in an elected position.

Just because he hasn’t served on the City Council doesn’t mean he will have a difficult time getting up to speed, he said.

“I think I can give a fresh perspective having not served on the council itself,” Hart said.

Vernon points to experience as one of her strengths over Hart, saying it will help her hit the ground running once she takes office. She was elected twice to City Council and before that served on the city’s planning commission.

“It’s a steep learning curve,” Vernon said. “I think just learning how to run the meetings, how to vote in a public setting, that can take some time. You have to herd the cats. This is a big City Council. There’s a lot involved.”

In the Dec. 5 runoff, voters can cast ballots from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the same polling location used on Election Day. In-person early voting is 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 20 to Dec. 4 at the Jean Oxley Linn County Public Service Center, 935 Second St. SW.

The Gazette is hosting a mayoral forum at 7 p.m. next Tuesday, Nov. 21, in Whipple Auditorium at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 Fifth Ave. SE. Attendance is free, and people can register at thegazette.com/crmayor.

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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